TWU biology graduate student Daisy Cantu is pioneering pain research for women

Daisy Cantu

As a young girl growing up in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Daisy Cantu was fascinated by the natural world and dreamed of becoming a doctor. She hoped to find a role model in the medical field who could provide some guidance, but as a child, she was struggling just to find a long-term living situation and a permanent family.

“I didn’t have a stable home,” Cantu recalled. “I was bouncing from house to house between people who found it in their hearts to care for me.”

Things changed at age 15, when she was adopted into a loving home.

“My mom, Sandra E. Cantu, embraced me with an open heart. That was a new beginning for me,” said Cantu of her adoption. However, her move to Laredo, Texas wasn’t without its challenges. She did not speak English when she began classes at her new high school, so in addition to navigating life in a new country and making friends, she was learning a new language.

Driven by her interest in health care, Cantu soon enrolled in a magnet school for health and science. She chose to pursue the school’s emergency medical technician (EMS) track and later passed her EMS national registry exam.

“One of my favorite experiences from the program was doing my rotations, when I had the opportunity to shadow paramedics. However, it was my work with the pathology department that really stood out to me,” said Cantu, who began considering a career in pathology, or the science of the causes and effects of diseases.

Following high school, Cantu decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biology at Texas Woman’s University, where she is now a proud third generation student. Her adoptive mother, aunt and grandmother all attended TWU to earn their bachelor’s degrees in dance, biochemistry, and industrial math and physics, respectively.

Cantu continued to work as an EMS during her summer breaks in order to gather more experience in the field, but it was during her junior year that she discovered her passion for neuroscience. She joined assistant professor Dayna Averitt’s pain neurosensory lab, where she began participating in research.

“I really enjoyed studying the brain,” said Cantu. “Dr. Averitt’s lab completely changed the course of my career, setting me on a new path in my education and future profession.”

Her current research focuses on identifying craniofacial and cortical brain pathways in males and females. She aims to determine whether hormones and stress alter neural processes when women experience inflammatory pain. 

“This research is significant to me because most current studies in pain are exclusively conducted on males,” she added. “However, understanding the activity of female neural circuitry is vital for the development of sex-specific therapeutic strategies to alleviate chronic pain.”

Cantu’s leadership and research have earned numerous awards and grants, including recent funding from the National Institute of Health to research pain and a travel award from the International Association for the Study of Pain, which will allow Cantu to attend the World Congress in Amsterdam August 4-8, 2020. Her findings have been presented at university symposiums as well as local and national conferences.

In addition to serving as president for both the TWU Curatio Club and Biology Graduate Student Association, she is a Chancellor’s Research Scholar and recipient of a Graduate Research Assistant Award, which allowed her to continue working toward her master’s degree in biology, which she plans to complete in Summer 2020. 

Although she acknowledges that she had a difficult beginning, Cantu refuses to let her obstacles define her.

“Instead of letting my past prevent me from becoming who I am now, I see my past as a teaching experience that made me a stronger individual. I believe my experiences shaped who I am now. In many ways, they were the catalysts for my pursuit of higher education,” said Cantu.

After graduation, Cantu plans to transfer into the department’s Ph.D. program in molecular biology and pursue a postdoctoral fellowship. Her long-term career aspirations are to work in either academia or the molecular biology industry.

“My goals are to obtain opportunities to network, connect and collaborate with people from similar and different disciplines,” said Cantu. “I truly believe that interdisciplinary collaborations and interactions with diverse researchers are very powerful and enriching tools, which will ultimately allow for the development of scientific breakthroughs.”


Page last updated 8:43 AM, March 19, 2020